When Jodie Whittaker got the news some months ago that she had been cast as the protagonist of Doctor Who, she went through a range of overwhelmed reactions. She cried; she caught her breath; she excitedly squeezed the knee of a colleague sitting next to her.
To be told that she would inherit the role of the Doctor, a time-travelling, space-faring adventurer who is perhaps one of the most recognisable heroes in science fiction, Whittaker says: “It wasn’t part of my mindset, as an actor, that it was possible.”
For Whittaker, 36, who until now was best known for her work on the crime drama Broadchurch, the casting decision was life-altering, as it would be for any performer – a guarantee that, when it was announced to the public, she would become instantly familiar to a global audience of millions.
In her case, however, there is an added, inescapable distinction: In the 55-year history of Doctor Who, during which 12 other actors have officially portrayed the Doctor, Whittaker is the first woman.
It’s clear that Whittaker and her colleagues want to celebrate the show’s inclusivity without chiding the wider genre for a historical lack of representation, and also highlight how they have made the series more contemporary and more diverse – behind the camera as well as in front of it – while emphasising that its fundamental principles haven’t changed.
This is no easy feat for the series, which is accustomed to a certain scrutiny when it replaces its lead actor every few years. The series is also a prominent entertainment property in a field where efforts to diversify are often attacked by a vocal subset of fans.
Despite these challenges, Whittaker says it was a role she could hardly resist. “There’s no other job like it”, she says. “And I certainly can’t be typecast as it.”
A London-based actor who was raised in West Yorkshire, Whittaker gained early attention for her roles in films like Venus (2006), opposite Peter O’Toole, and Attack the Block (2011), with John Boyega, before her breakthrough playing the mourning mother of a murder victim in three seasons of Broadchurch.
That proved crucial when Steven Moffat, who had been the show runner of Doctor Who since 2009, decided to leave the series, and the BBC turned to Chris Chibnall, the creator of Broadchurch, as his possible successor.
As he considered the opportunity, Chibnall recalls: “I made a list of pros and cons, and there were 10 cons and one pro – it’s Doctor Who. And the moment I start thinking, oh, we could do that story and have those characters, the show started talking to me.”
Chibnall, who had previously written several Doctor Who episodes, says he wanted his incarnation of the series to be “incredibly emotional,” with “stories that resonate with the world we’re living in now, and I wanted it to be the most accessible, inclusive, diverse season of Doctor Who that the show has ever done.”
When it became clear that Peter Capaldi, who became the Doctor in 2013, was also leaving the show, Chibnall says he had one further stipulation: “I was seeking a female Doctor. I was really clear.”
Although actors like Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Tilda Swinton had been mentioned as candidates for the role in the past, these rumours never yielded substantive results. A change was long overdue, Chibnall says, for a character with the ability to shape-shift and regenerate in new forms.
Whittaker, who he believed could handle the character’s emotional complexity and antic humour, was among his top choices. “The precision of what she does is extraordinary, and her instincts are just so right,” Chibnall says of Whittaker, adding that she is “incredibly funny.”
Whittaker grew up on beloved 1980s genre films like Back to the Future, The Goonies and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, never discouraged that there were so few female protagonists to identify with.
But when it came to Doctor Who, she says, “The thought that you – that I – could be in it never crossed my mind”. When Chibnall asked her to consider auditioning for him, Whittaker says: “I was like: ‘Can I play a monster with loads of prosthetics?’” After Chibnall explained that he wanted her to try out for the starring role, Whittaker says, she answered, “If I don’t get it, can I still play a monster?”
Following an audition process in which other women were also considered – Chibnall has not says who they were – the BBC revealed the selection of Whittaker in a commercial shown after the Wimbledon men’s final in July 2017.
Chibnall says he expected that it would take some time for the Doctor Who fan base to embrace this choice. “I thought it would take people a year,” he says. “We were like: ‘OK, helmets on. Hunker down.’”
In fact, the announcement of Whittaker was hailed quickly and widely but not universally. A disparaging hashtag, #NotMyDoctor, circulated on Twitter and Instagram, and the BBC received complaints from viewers, prompting the broadcaster to issue a statement that affirmed that: “The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey, and it has been established in the show that time lords can switch gender,” adding that Whittaker “is destined to be an utterly iconic Doctor.”
Peter Davison, who played the Doctor in the early 1980s, said at a 2017 Comic-Con appearance that he felt “a bit sad” at “the loss of a role model for boys,” while Colin Baker, his heir to the role, said those remarks were “absolute rubbish”, adding: “You don’t have to be of a gender for someone to be a role model.”
Whittaker says she had largely been spared the brunt of this debate because she is not on social media. If an online critic has a premature assessment of her, she says: “It’s not a fact — it’s an opinion. I have no issue with someone having a different opinion from me. I don’t necessarily want to have my last meal with them.”